Archive for May, 2004

day three hundred fourty c

This is actually a journal from a long time ago. I wrote this just after getting back from Chinguetti (over a month ago), but it took me two weeks before my email was working again. Getting both caught up and far enough ahead to leave for most of June and still be ready for the stagiers coming at the end of the month kept me from finding time to send it.

This one is special on the web because I may well take this trip again. It is alot of fun if you’ve got entertaining people to talk to during the many hours on the road.

We’ve actually started getting a little traffic from countries in the south of people wanting to see camels and sand dunes and what-not.


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day three hundred fourty b

Real quick I want to write about the two guys I’ve been hanging out with lately: Diagana and Oumar. Both of them are second year English students at the university and both have been looking to practice their English.

It has been really good for me because I get to practice my French quite a bit and I really do want to make some Mauritanian friends while I’m here.

As a part of their second year they have an American and British History class. I’ve been reviewing quite a bit of the Great Depression and World War II explaining the stuff to Oumar. We had an interesting moment when we were discussing Nazism and Fascism for a handout on Totalitarianism. We were talking about the idea of the Aryan race and that the Germans killed millions of Jews. He reacted with surprise asking if the Nazis really were racist. As to the concentration camps he had never heard of them.

I had this strange moment when I felt almost sad. Not sad at his ignorance or anything condescending like that. Sad like if I knew one of his parents had died and I had to be the one to tell him. I never really thought about it before, but knowing the cruelty that we have reached in war is an important part of understanding human nature. I can never look at humanity as being to noble when I know that we have looked at faces all to similar to our own and put them to death.

I didn’t really go into the Holocaust that much other than to tell him that there were in fact millions of Jews and others killed for no reason other than not being Aryan.


They have both been helping me get ready for my trip because I had to buy some stuff to show off a bit of Africa to my family. Buying stuff is a real challenge here because there are no fixed prices. You literally just have to know the price and bargain. I have bargained for a can of Coke before.

For artsy touristy stuff it is orders of magnitude worse. Many people hunting for this stuff not only don’t know the prices, they either don’t know the value of the money or they have enough they don’t care. So, the prices usually start out doubled at least.

I took Oumar with me one day to help me bargain and we did alright. Then I gave him a couple thousand to go off and buy what he could find. The problem is that I have had difficulty convincing him that I really only wanted Mauritanian stuff. I don’t really need to show my family the latest in Chinese baubles. So, I got a couple of interesting things and mostly carnival looking stuff.

Diagana took me to his house and we got his sister and bought some mulafas. I wanted to get a boubou to show everyone, but they cost to much. Maybe when I leave I can get more complete outfits like caftans and what-not.

Then he came by this evening and gave me a necklace for my mom and a couple bracelets to send to Steph. I thought it was really thoughtful. I had been telling him about having missed seeing my family and also about regretting that Steph would not come see this country now that we are broken up.

I really want to impress on them just how much I like their country. Alot of Mauritanians will tell me stuff like “America is good; Mauritania is bad” and I think they miss the value in this place sometimes. It really does make me sad that probably no one I know will see this place. After you get by the dirtiness it really is an interesting place.

Anyhow, I just priced plane tickets online and Casablanca to Paris is 650 euro, which is 250 euro more than I have, so it looks like I’ll be going by land one way or another. =)


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day three hundred fourty a

I’m not quite completely worn out yet which is good since I’ll be on a plane in about twelve hours headed to Casablanca.

Things have been really busy the last couple weeks and I dislike not having written more. My life is getting interesting and I’d like to share more of it.

Had a couple big lessons the last couple days.

The most painful was on the national monetary policy. The ouguiya is a non-convertible currency. This means that unlike the dollar, euro or yen, the ouguiya is not traded on the open money markets. It is, in fact, illegal to take ouguiya out of the country. It has to be possible to convert money, so the ouguiya is pegged to the dollar at a rate fixed by the central bank. Whatever the dollar trades at versus other currencies can then be used to convert ouguiya.

The problem with having the central bank decide on the rate rather than an open market is that the central bank may or may not decide to respond to the real value of the currency based on trade.

In many situations this would be a problem because say for instance the bank fixed the rate at 100um = $1. If the buying power was actually 150um = $1 then before I buy something I’d just convert all my dollars to ouguiya and have 50% more buying power for free.

This disparity is present in Mauritania. The official rate is 254um = $1 and the actual rate is about 344um = $1. The problem is addressed in Mauritania by it being impossible to change money at the official rate. Anyone can change dollars to ouguiya no problem (since going at the official rate means losing 90um for every dollar) and in fact it is required for international businesses to change at the official rate.

Going the other way though is only possible if you have a check written in dollars from a company which has to change at the official rate. And even then it takes special permission.

Why does this pain me? Because I needed to change ouguiya to euro to make it to Paris to meet my family. The difference between the official rate and the black market (which is a bit of a misnomer since it is the only market) is 310um/420um cost me 165 euro ($200) for how much I was changing. Ouch, huh?

Other painful lesson?

The eurail and the train system in Europe are completely separate entities. The most important effect of this is that eurail passes are not sold in train stations, but only at certain special vendors.

The eurail system is also only available to people who are tourists. It is not possible to have a pass mailed to you in Europe. This included Morocco. Because of this there are not many vendors in Europe and the normally fixed price for outside Europe is inflated.

So, as you might have guessed I have no ticket for the train that I am hoping to catch. Furthermore, they don’t sell them in Morocco or in Algeciras, the Spanish side of the Strait of Gibraltar. The nearest city is Seville and that is 150km away.

This is completely my fault. I figured that the train system was just the train system and so I could buy a ticket in Algeciras or Casablanca. I also had read that the price is fixed and it was only on searching that I learned it is only fixed outside of Europe.

Given that I’ve been planning this for a month it really is just completely my fault. I could have gotten a ticket via the internet if I had just planned far enough ahead. Oh well, I am expecting the mistake to cost me quite a bit and it just means I’ll either have to eat less or sleep on the side of the road. =) I’ll manage something, I’m sure.

I’m still incredibly excited though. It is almost like a challenge. I have 400 euro and five days to make it to Paris to meet my family. Can I do it? =)


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Will’s May 2004

Ha! Not dead. Had you fooled, eh? Fortunately though rumors of my demise were much overstated. Unfortunately I am currently so incredibly busy that I might as well be deceased.

Let’s see, the date on the last journal was day 291, that makes it a little over a month. It has been a remarkably unremarkable month. =)

Marc and I went to Chinguetti with some Senegalese volunteers. That was quite entertaining. I wrote something about it in the long dark silence. I just have to figure out what I did with that and I’ll send it along.

Umm, other stuff… We guys here in Nouakchott have started playing poker. I like it. The betting is entertaining. I mostly suck, but we are playing ten ouguiya a chip (and by chip I mean matchstick since poker chips don’t exist here) and so I can usually play for a few hours before running out of money.

Ahh, the monkey’s paw. Are you familiar with the story? You get the paw and you get to make wishes. The catch is it’s cursed so you wishes always go horribly wrong. A woman gets it and wishes for $100,000. The next day her son is pulled into machine at the mill and his life insurance pays out $100,000. Stuff like that.

Well, you might remember that for New Years I resolved to make some Mauritanian friends. It has begun. The English department is next door to the Faculty of Sciences and it has been supplying a steady stream of people who wander over to say “hello” and practice a bit. I mentioned to a couple people where my house is and I now get visitors. All well and good except when they come knocking at the ass crack of dawn, which they do.

It has been helping my French though and there are a couple of guys that I really like.

Got to see Baba Maal. He came to Nouakchott. Very cool. Completely in Pulaar. Didn’t understand a word of it. Found that to detract surprisingly little.

It was a crowd of probably a couple thousand and every so often they’d react to something he’d said and start jumping and clapping. It was almost like being in a thunderstorm with the occasional torrents of light and sound governed by forces I didn’t understand.

Stephanie has a little brother who is autistic. Watching him eat a hamburger stands as one of the exemplars to me of immersion in action.

There is a koan which goes something like: “A student walks in on his master eating breakfast while reading the paper. ‘Master,’ he says, ‘I thought you told me to only eat breakfast when I eat breakfast. Yet, you are reading the paper.’ ‘Yes,’ replied the master, ‘when you eat breakfast only eat breakfast, and when you eat breakfast and read the paper only eat breakfast and read the paper.'”

When Jackie eats a hamburger that’s it. He’s not like me sitting there thinking about what comes next or lamenting my position in life or whatever. That burger is, for the moment, the center of everything. It is really inspiring to watch.

At the concert I was next to a fellow who didn’t so much listen to the music as was grabbed and shaken around by it. He was bouncing all over the place, to the extent that the limited confines would allow, cigarette dangling all the while from his lips drawing little red cryptograms in the air.

Bought a stove. Well, think bunsen burner on steroids. I can cook though, to the extent that soup and oatmeal qualify as “cooking.”

Leave for Europe for most of July in 11 days. Indescribably excited. Flying to Casablanca and taking the train up through Spain to meet my family in Paris. Dad won’t be there, but I’m working on convincing him to come here and hang out next year.

(Hey dad, look at these: you don’t have to come stay in Mauritania, Africa is big.) =)

Obvious thing that happened: I got kicked off the Honors server. Irritating, but what can you do? I still like Honors and wasn’t the biggest fan the University’s central administration before, so not much harm done.

Thanks to the venerable Elijah I exist once again. Not quite sure what I can do to even begin to repay the debt, so if you have the opportunity do something nice for him.

Ok, sleeping time. I have a meeting with one of my new Mauritanian friends at 8 bloody thirty tomorrow morning, so bed is a good idea.

I think I’ve dumped the most important stuff here. Hopefully I’ll get a couple more of these out more coherently before Europe destroys my schedule again.


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